Mystery of God’s Presence in McCarthy’s Novel The Road: Critical Analysis

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It is not often that an author will incorporate both evidence supporting God as well as evidence against God in one novel. This brings a sense of uncertainty about God’s presence, an important unanswered question in the world. Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is one such novel that is plainly ambiguous about the existence of God. Critics have analysed important aspects of the storyline to show their answer to the question of God’s presence. Although there is substantial and sophisticated evidence from critics saying that there is a definite answer, the similar and clashing viewpoints point towards the proposition that the possibilities of a higher power seem as promising as it is unpromising. No evidence in McCarthy’s novel leads to a definite and concrete answer.

The paradoxical words of the only named character, Ely, are an important moment in which uncertainty of God’s presence is presented. Ely makes his own prophetic proclamation that “there is no God and we are his prophets” (181), which are clear atheist words. The atheism of this statement is agreed upon by critic Erik. J. Wielenburg, who believes that Ely and the rest of the humans still remaining in McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic world are “prophets of atheism, bearing witness to the absence of God from the universe” (2). Wielenburg’s view is well reasoned as the onset of this calamity has caused the foundations of religion to backfire, showing the fragility of something untrue. Here stands Ely, watching the God-trusting people lose what never existed, an argument for atheism in the novel that is hard to ignore. This side of the debate is also agreed upon by Allen Josephs who also believes that Ely in “his own crazy Nietzschean way that God is so utterly removed from us as to be dead” (23). This removal from God within us that Josephs states is to an extent disagreeable because the idea that the teachings of God are no longer within us due to the prevailing sin that rampages does not necessarily indicate an absence of God- rather, it shows an absence in the belief of God’s messages. The ability to do good, to do God’s work is within each man but whether he believes it worthy or not of his time and effort is different. Both Wielenburg and Josephs have failed to answer a conundrum- why would such an atheist man give himself the name Ely, a reference to the prophet Elijah? If the first name he can think of is of such a religious name, does it not show in contrast to what the critics have deduced from Ely’s character that there is still an inkling of belief in this old, withered prophet? His belief in God cowers under the atheist views he holds more strongly but it is the spark that carries him through each day, not the assumption that Ely “has survived not through divine assistance but rather through random chance” (Wielenburg, 2). We must ponder for what personal reason Ely insists on the absence of God, to which he provides an answer to: “to be on the road with the last god would be a terrible thing” (183).

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Critics like Josephs and Wielenburg have not realised that though Ely’s words initial atheist announcement shows the novel in a nihilistic light, he also seems to show that he does have belief for God because he seems afraid of this higher power, of the Judgement Day which he fears he will be punished mercilessly for sins unknown of. The contrasts between this evidence for a God-figure and the evidence of the critics both hold an equal amount of credibility. No matter which way we approach this character Ely, he has a strong emphasis on atheism yet his fear of God acknowledges a presence of a higher power. Nonetheless, both critics have strong cases about the absence of God- how can Ely accept the presence of God in a world “where men cant live gods fare no better” (183)? Yet, the evidence for God cannot be ignored by the critics. The biblical allusions that come with the character Ely gets us no closer to the answer of God’s existence. The Road gives no one-sided answer to the mystery of God’s presence and whether the religious are right, or the atheists who watch the religious pray immensely are right.

In times of chaos, it is inevitable for man to begin questioning if God is present as he wonders why God would allow for ruin. McCarthy’s novel envisages this through “the man”, the main protagonist. The man often loses hope, feeling despair at “the sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality” (93). These words seem to give the message of how unrealistic God is as sin reigns and strips any foundation of a supposed God’s work, making the presence of God less real. Allen Josephs takes the man’s words as a sign of evidence against God, due to the fact you “subtract the idiom and you subtract the referent- the un-reification of God” (21). The idiom’s figurative meaning is lost in this post-apocalyptic world where the teachings and morals and disciplines of God have vanished in the struggle to survive. With the loss of understanding the meaning of God, the idiom of God fails and the man becomes shattered. In the moments where the man’s son is in danger, the man’s faith in God becomes almost nil as he accuses God: “Are you there? he whispered. Will I see you at last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul? Oh God, he whispered. Oh God” (10). Though the man questions the existence of God, he also acknowledges God’s presence through addressing God which shows his belief in the possibilities of a higher power, clearly depicting the novel’s ambivalence on the subject. Allen Josephs addresses the man’s lament and accusations towards God and believes “If there’s a god out there, he’s not very evident...Relentless, intestate, implacable, blind, crushing, hunted, trembling- is there a more ferocious description anywhere of our borrowed world” (22). This idea is insightful because how can the man believe in God’s presence when there is no sign of miracles? What Josephs hasn’t taken into account is that God’s presence is not necessarily marked by the miracles that occur, but also by the punishments humanity faces. The fiery gloom of the man’s present day is punishment from the higher power whom he seeks salvation from. Humanity is unable to comprehend the idea of an unforgiving Lord despite the fact it deserves to be punished for destroying a world that they have merely borrowed from the creator of the universe. However, it is hard to what is and isn’t the work of God, so the idea of God being present through punishment is not easy to affirm. The man’s constant questioning of God’s existence also is due to the desperate need for motivation: “he grasps for beliefs that will make his struggle make sense” (Wielenburg, 3). The idea of God is essential for humans to be able to justify why something is happening and that somehow, things will be reverted back. At the same time, the man does not want to fool himself with beliefs on God and find his journey has been futile, that there was no one waiting for him at the end. The man chooses not to end his own life unlike his wife for fear of sinning and being punished if a God existed out there. Through this problem of uncertainty, the man remains frustrated and does not know how to proceed without a clear answer to this whole mystery. McCarthy’s story encompasses ideas on this “un-reification” of God yet also shows that God exists but in a more merciless way, the ambiguity of it all never resolving, leaving humanity to question both the possibility and impossibility of God’s presence. The man’s internal debate shows that while disagreeing with the presence of God, acknowledging a possible presence is inevitable. While humanity wails about an absence of God through a lack of miracles, it cannot avoid recognizing the possible presence either through the brutal Judgement.

In a world where everything has been all but obliterated, the need for a physical form of God is essential for “the man” to persevere down the road. We see the man revere his little boy and make proclamations about his son, the most important stating that “He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke” (3). The need for his son is not to overcome loneliness but for the man to continue the journey despite the horrific sins and helplessness he sees around him. Without his son, the man would lose hope that there will come a time when everything will resolve. Emily Lane believes the boy to be the man’s spiritual leader or guide, as “the boy’s pure heart dispels the man’s hopelessness and moves him forward. Without the infallible goodness he sees in the boy’s innocence, the man’s will to survive would be broken” (19). Knowing that there is at least one innocent soul in the world who carries the messages of God tenderly gives the man solace. The man’s journey has purpose- he believes that he must at all costs look after the boy, that he “was appointed to do that by God” (80) and this purpose gives the man something to live for and makes him believe that the goodness of God can shine. The evidence for the boy being a second Jesus occurs in several instances, giving evidence for the case of God existing which gives a foundation for the man’s life. From the compassion shown to Ely, to the uncanny allusion to Adam and Eve’s original sin as the boy with his father encounters a den of naked people, “all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands” (116) as they see this second coming of God, the evidence for God cannot be ignored. Though Lane’s idea is well argued, the accumulation of support for the boy being some sort of messiah figure has weak areas. The boy is young and unable to carry himself forward without his father to guide him down good paths. The boy knows no other morally-driven people except for his father so the ability to keep up his pureness can be doubtful after his father’s death though it is unmentioned in The Road. In several instances the boy constantly asks his father “Are we still the good guys?” This query unmistakably shows “growing awareness that good and bad can no longer be distinguished” (Rambo, 82). Though he certainly knows how to do good actions, to identify them is hard for the boy and so the boy portraying a messiah is weak because he seems susceptible to following the wrong path. The dissonance between Rambo and Lane is just another indicator that with the evidence for God present, there is an equal amount of opposition at the same time. Thomas Schaub takes a different approach by saying that the father confuses the love he gives to his son as a sign of the child being God: “this ethico-religious dimension is merely the invention of the father- that the father’s love of his son is such that he views his son as a ‘child of god’” (157). Schaub contradicts Lane’s approach to the father’s view and does not hold the opinion that the love is God- at most, the love and goodness is human companionship. Considering Schaub’s idea in a slightly disagreeing way, the man isn’t expecting his child to be a second Jesus but rather raising him into a child imbibed with love and goodness, which gives the man hope that the God within man will still thrive. God then can be defined as a personified version of the goodness within, which is what keeps man moralistic and rational. By nurturing his son, “coaxing it along with words of love” (59), the father sees his child as an embodiment of God, an embodiment of whole-hearted goodness. Furthermore, it is an assurance that the man has retained the God within him if his child is pure and innocent under his guidance. From all these views, it is seen that the need for a physical messiah is necessary to motivate people to continue being good. However, in a world where the inner God is tainted with sin and enmity, how can there be any presence of someone that is truly good; truly God? Even the boy is not truly good with his inability to differentiate goodness and evil. The ability however to still pass on the goodness as shown by the man displays a sliver of hope but with the evidence for and against God occurring simultaneously, there is no resolution. From whatever definition we consider God to be, the boy as a sign of God is both fantastical and audacious in McCarthy’s novel.

The indistinctness of God’s presence lies in the debate of whether humanity will be redeemed when the world collapses on itself. The final words of The Road give no clear statements about whether redemption from a higher power will occur. The narrator's description of the once- existing brook trout with “vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back” (307) seems at a glance devoid of hope. Looking at how these words are used, “the thing which could not be put back is ‘the world in its becoming,’ not the world accomplished and destroyed” (Schaub, 161). Redemption is possible and impossible- to have the world as it once was becoming is unredeemable but to have a world in a simple state free of disasters and hopelessness looks redeemable. Schaub’s opinion is intelligent and is not one-sided- he shows subtly the fact that a higher power is and isn’t here. In spite of this, is gaining back a world even at a simple state possible if there is no God to restore equilibrium? Emily Lane comments on the boy meeting and joining a new family and “when he meets the woman, a symbol of fertility, the boy leaves hell behind him. The presence of a Beatrice figure foreshadows a hopeful ending” (29). That the family has followed the son and decided to take care of him seems like the work of a higher power. Nevertheless, the idea of redemption from the present-day horrors in the novel cannot be certain just because a woman is present. The woman is a symbol of life & procreation but whether she can deliver the boy out of the claws of sin is never known. Lane’s reference to Dante’s Divine Comedy when she compares the woman to Beatrice gives another approach to the possibilities of redemption in The Road. It is not miraculous intervention that will deliver the boy and others on the road out of despair but the triumph of human love- the love from the goodness or God within each man. The classic family portrait presented at the end of the novel shows the bonds of companionship and kindness between the family and the boy after the child has been left alone by his father, in the same way that Beatrice becomes a companion to Dante once Virgil has left him. However, Shelly Rambo brings in the opposition that while this love may flourish, “this triumph and hope shudders in the face of the statement: ‘Not be made right again’”(85). Rambo’s message is impactful and agreeable- how can the world be put back together again with McCarthy’s statement? The redemption that the family provides to the boy and vice versa is not going to last forever but will end when all has been demolished. The death of good people like the family will limit the godliness of the world to nothing. The idea of redemption in the novel amongst critics has mainly been focused on the idea that God will be merciful when restoring the world back to its former glory. The world could in fact be restored slowly with a merciless extermination of evil from a higher power. Critic Barbara Bennett contrasts Lane and Schaub’s ideology and compares McCarthy’s story to that of W.B Yeats’s The Second Coming. Bennett’s idea is well-reasoned as she explains that “like Yeats, McCarthy does not envision the Second Coming as a joyful return of Jesus Christ, but rather wonders what monster might appear to take payment for our destructiveness and greed” (77). The atonement will not be forgiving- each man must pay grievously for all mistakes before humanity may experience a chaos-free world. Every human is affected by the original sin of Adam and Eve therefore, each individual must be purged. The boy’s father and mother have died but it is needed “before the next generation can accomplish its destiny, whatever that may be” (Bennett, 77). Whether the destruction of the world is the work of a raging God or from the sinful man is still questionable because God is never seen- the supposed works are seen but it is hard to pinpoint the origin. Everything is mere speculation when it comes to the subject of God. Though the novel gives the impression that the world can slowly be reconstructed by the boy and other young souls, you encounter the query of how they may achieve their destiny if the maps of the brook trout cannot be made right again to follow. Will the goodness within man be enough to carry humanity forward, or will it too wither away and be forgotten due to enchantment into sin? This endless cycle of possibility and impossibility makes McCarthy’s novel so equivocal about God’s presence. God granting salvation in The Road seems as likely as it is unlikely.

Through the eyes of many critics, it is seen that the evidence for God and the evidence against God weigh equally in sophistication and credibility in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. These similar and contrasting views held by different critics help shed new ideas on the definition of God being a personification of human goodness or the idea of redemption that can only come after facing God’s wrath for ruining the world we have borrowed with no respect. However, these ideas of what God could be are negated by the ideas of God not existing at all. The impossibility of God is enhanced when we see how it is not possible for any God to be present in a world where men cannot thrive and that no messianic protector can save man when the messiah-like humans are tainted with the original sin. There is no clear answer to the debate of God’s presence in The Road at all- only vague hints. McCarthy leaves the query of God’s presence unanswered and ambiguous and suggests that even at what seems like the end of the world, the answer will still yet to be defined.

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Mystery of God’s Presence in McCarthy’s Novel The Road: Critical Analysis. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 24, 2024, from
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